Jost Amman Created Illustrated Playing Cards circa 1588


Following in the wake of the burgeoning Italian art movement, and in an instance of life imitating art, the German Renaissance developed a new form of medieval knightly culture. Where painting and sculpture reigned as supreme reflections of the grandeur of man, the onset of printing via wood block printing and the printing press, was initiated and found its own school in the German states. Imaginative decks of playing cards were produced by artists such as Hans Leonhard Schäufelein (1480-1540), Erhard Schön (1491-1542), Peter Flötner (1485–1546) and Jost Amman (1539-1591)…


Jost Ammon playing cards, hand-painted

A hand-painted version of Jost Amman’s playing cards


Images presented here are facsimile edition cards from The Book of Trades by the prolific German Renaissance artist Jost Amman. The four suits included in the deck are “books,” “printers’ pads,” “wine-pots,” and “drinking cups.” Some of the images had already appeared in books published prior to the cards’ publication, along with moralizing verses beneath each image.


“Indulging their fancy, they [German card-makers] varied the [suit] signs according to every capricious notion: unicorns, dogs, rabbits and apes, monkeys and lions, parrots and peacocks, stroll or fly or flutter through the cardboard world. Packs appeared with suits of pinks, of columbines, printers’ inkpads, vases, drinking cups, books, combs, fishes, crowns, bellows, frying-pans, shields, alms-houses and knives; some were circular.”

—Roger Tilley, Playing Cards, (Littlehampton Book Services Ltd;
2nd Revised edition,1973), p. 35.


Amman’s humor is discernible in almost every card, where little groups of figures decorate the numeral cards. Amman’s cards also influenced several later cardmakers/printers.


Jost Amman playing cards, pips


As with most German decks of the time period, Amman’s court cards featured a King (on horseback) and 2 Knaves—an “over”(Ober) and an “under”(Unter). Today we assign these designations as “Knight” and “Page” (or “Knave”). The four “10” cards in the deck each depict a single female personage, thus without extending the 52-card deck count, the “court” cards were extended to four in each separate suit (possibly a residual or transitory demarcation from the trick-taking game of tarrocchi).


Jost Amman playing cards, court cards ink pads-and-cups


As The World of Playing Cards website asks, in this particular position (tenth card of the pips suits but below the court cards), “Are these ‘Queens’ or female pages?” Well…the three remaining court cards—all men—already depict pages (or knaves), as well as squires, and lords or kings on horseback. The problem with modern associations of the Page with the female gender is that, while convenient for balance and equity of gender in the court system of the deck, it is not historically accurate. Pages or “knaves” were young boys who were given by a local family (sometimes as a “tithe” or “payment”)—sometimes as early as the age of five or six—to act as a young servant to the lord and lady of the fiefdom. They did train in the arts of warfare and received a modicum of education and spiritual training, but really in a trial-for-squire’s-apprenticeship sort of role. Their main role was waiting upon and serving the needs (and whims) of the lord and lady.


One might think of the Page as a time-in-training to become a squire. A squire was a slightly older boy assigned as a personal servant to attend to the needs and requirements of a knight—mostly in caring for dress and weapons and of all-important riding horses. A squire was trained much more extensively in the arts of war and battle—necessary for following his master knight into battle.


A knight was someone who successfully fulfilled his role as a squire and became a battle-ready warrior ready to defend not only his lord and his realm, but also the virtues that ascended the individual as a model and idol of elevated human existence, of chivalry, of moral and spiritual gravitas.


All of these roles, however—page or knave, squire, and knight—were all roles for boys and men. What we can say with certainty is that—historically—women did not have the opportunities to participate in such aggressive and destiny-altering roles. (Women did cross social boundaries and did perform in these roles, but not without much secrecy and danger to themselves. Doing so meant disrupting the natural order of the universe (understood during the time period). It is why the stories of Joan of Arc made for such scandalous entertainment, and despite her victories, why she had to be put to death in order to put the world back on its course with the natural order that God decreed for men and women.) Today this world-view is outrageous and defamatory and misogynistic—and rightly so. But before the industrial revolution, when the perpetuation of the human race was dependent on a birth rate that exceeded the high mortality rate, and before science and medicine created greater equity and normalization of health and longevity, women were basically relegated to the role of child-birthing incubator. Girls were reared for this job in its primacy. It is no wonder that women were worth so much as a commodity, as chattel…because the extension of the family line had a far greater impetus and grim prospect. Women were necessary. In the game of chess—another leisure activity game popular during the middle Ages and the Renaissance—the game is won by capturing the Queen, not the King, because to eliminate the Queen from the playing board eliminated the opportunity for succession of the royal line.


This perspective disgusts many modern people—especially in 1st-world western nations. It is hard for us to imagine a world without the modern comforts and luxuries that we take for granted today—as opposed to the constant theme of death that reared its potentiality at every turn in the lives of people until the late 1700s. (And which is why the Death card [XIII] is a significant trump in the Major Arcana of the tarot deck.) Women were indeed important in society, but from a different perspective and for different reasons than we think of women as important today.


But getting back to our study of playing decks…


German decks, like Spanish ones, do not usually contain Queens. There was a fascination with power and horses in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, thus Kings were often depicted mounted on horseback (rather than knights). If these ladies depicted in Amman’s deck are indeed “Queens” then there is an indication of an Italian or French element for which to be accounted. But in Spanish decks the 10s are known as ‘Sotas’ and are also sometimes female.


Jost Ammon playing cards, court cards books-and-pots

(Cards from the limited edition facsimile deck published by Edizone Il Meneghello, Via Fara 15, Milano, Italy.)


To see more of Jost Amman’s woodcut images see these previous blog entries here, here, and here.





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